The casual violence of driving

  • batwrangler, cc via flickr
 

Slow is not always beautiful, but it's the best way to experience the West -- for better or worse. When I'm cross-country bicycling, I'm out in the air where I can smell everything, including the road surface, petroleum exhaust and carrion, especially deer that have died after being hit by vehicles.

Of course, roads are necessary in the rural West -- without them we'd be even more isolated than we are -- but they are also one of the most disruptive events for wildlife in the history of evolution. Zipping along at 65 or 75 mph or even higher speeds, we become agents of death to all manner of other creatures, whether they walk, fly or slither. And sadly, we don't even realize what we're doing. What happens if we try going slower? If you really want to know a place or a road through a landscape, walking or riding a bicycle is the way to go.

Once, on a cycling tour that took me up the Pacific Coast into Canada and back through the Rockies, I traveled through the Northern Sierras. The day was hot, the asphalt was sticky and I was irritable as the evening came on. Worse, the only campsite I could find was sandwiched between the highway and the shore of a lake. Though the occasional car would burst past, I was able to doze off, but then the full moon started to rise, the wind shifted, and the breeze carried the sickly smell of carrion.

The next morning, I was on the road early, and I paused to rest before I tackled a steep hill. Suddenly, a strangely dressed man stepped out of the trees and walked to the edge of the road. He was a curious sight. A big, fully bearded fellow wearing a white cotton robe that fell to his ankles, exposing bare feet in flip-flops, he also wore a poncho cut from a brown wool blanket.

He thrust a piece of paper into my hand, and I read the message written in big type: "We're monks who don't believe in violence of any kind to animals or humans. Don't eat meat and throw away your leather. Goodbye and good luck."

I must have seemed like a poor customer for his message as I thrust my leather bike shoes into the pedal clips. Struggling to shift gears, I sat back on a leather seat and gripped the handlebars with my leather gloves as I pedaled hard up the hill. Then, at the top, I smelled a dead deer before I even saw it.

I was pedaling through continuous violence, I realized: Every day, I smelled carrion and saw dead birds, skunks, beaver, chipmunks, snakes, dogs, cats and other animals mashed into the road's surface or lying just off it. In Montana's Bitterroot Valley, I even spotted some flattened fauna that looked like it might have been a mink.

Name an animal, and a car has probably killed it.

But probably the worst of it was my realization that most of us never seem to give it any thought. There are exceptions: I heard a story about a Zen teacher at Tassajara Monastery in California's Big Sur, who would ask his driver to stop at every dead animal. The monk would get out, bow and bless each roadside carcass.

One time, my wife hit a small deer on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona. I got out and decided to move the poor thing off the road. I grabbed two of its legs and swung it off to the side, but was surprised when the small deer uttered a moan. I left it along the road, thinking it was going to die, but feeling certain that it was better if it didn't get run over a second time. I stopped at the same spot days later and there was no sign of it. I hope it survived.

I know that sometimes hitting an animal smashes a car as well, and I know that sometimes people are killed in such collisions. I've come close. One dark night, my wife and I were driving our pickup down that same Kaibab road when we hit a cow. It was a big cow, which, I guess, turned out to be lucky for us, because it stood so high off the ground. When we hit it, our radiator and hood took the impact, and we were unhurt. Of course, the cow didn't survive.

Now, whenever I'm in a car, insulated by metal and the power to speed through the world, I try to drive more slowly than almost anybody else. And I bow, or silently nod my head, to all the destroyed creatures that I know are lying on or just beside the road.

Tom Carter writes in Kanab, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.